America has always been more religiously devout than other Western democracies. But now, like them, it has begun to secularize rapidly. And, as religion has declined, political ideology has intensified, society has fragmented, and cultural common ground has disintegrated. As a result, politics is increasingly divisive and existentially fraught.
For over three decades, debates about politics and about what it means to be American have been undertaken with a sweated anxiety and with the zeal of a religious fundamentalist.
Make no mistake: politics is inherently religious. As the great bishop, Augustine of Hippo averred, deeply felt political conviction should be understood as redirected religion. Similarly, over a century ago, Dutch theologian and prime minister Abraham Kuyper sought throughout his career to show that ideologies are essentially faith-based.
That faith and politics are inherently conjoined is not all bad. In fact, religious commonality has often helped societies gain and maintain a certain amount of political cohesion. If most people in a society adhere to roughly the same religious beliefs, the odds are better that the political common ground among its members is broader than it would be otherwise.
For this very reason, Americans now have much less common ground than we did before. However, we might find temporary common ground when under attack by an enemy such as Al-Qaeda, we have very little in common when it comes to deeply-held beliefs and values. Whereas in the past, most Americans assented to significant components of the Judeo-Christian moral framework, today no such consensus can be found. Members of various ideological tribes are less able to understand each other or extend goodwill to one another and thus tend to view each other’s members with suspicion and, often, hostility.
As Shadi Hamid recently noted, “the newly ascendant American ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was…are meant to be divisive.” By way of example, he offers the Left’s “wokeness” movement, which takes “religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose(s) them for secular ends.” Likewise, certain strands of nationalism on the right coopt religious language and sentiment to bolster a vision of ethnic or cultural hegemony.
This was not always true of American society. In the past, Christianity provided significant existential commonality among America’s citizens and a common culture within which to live. Yet now, judging by the encroaching chaos tearing apart our societal fabric, today’s ascendant ideologies cannot fill the spiritual void left by the historic Christian faith.
Whereas Christianity recognized the brokenness of this fallen world, and thus encouraged its adherents to distance themselves somewhat from the temporal world, the new secular ideologies seek immediate political salvation wrought not by God in the future but by political activists in the here-and-now. As a result of the urgency of bringing salvation in the present moment, activists often encourage their adherents to eviscerate their ideological opponents as the embodiment of evil and, as such, pave the way for urgent revolutionary action.
In this manner, political debates take on metaphysical dimensions and are fraught with the existential angst one would expect at a revival meeting.
One wishes for a fourth religious awakening which may not be forthcoming. Yet, in the absence of that, we must expect America’s social and political tensions to deepen and further intensify.
Given the ascendance of secular ideologies, what can Americans do?
We must work to retain the best of our American cultural heritage, including especially its Judeo-Christian underpinnings. This is no fever-dream of Christian nationalism, as many have recently accused Christian public thinkers of pursuing. We have never been a “Christian nation” in the sense of having a Christian creed or a uniformly righteous citizenry. But we always have been, and can still be, to borrow French political philosopher Pierre Manent’s phrase, “a nation of a Christian mark.”
We must retain the Christian heritage of our nation, if not because of personal Christian conviction, at least because of admiration for what it has produced—including the common ground necessary for some sense of healthy national identity and constructive political debate.
We must seek to convince our neighbors to not make a “god” of politics and to realize that real salvation and vibrant life together cannot be produced by political ideology and activism. In the French Revolution, secularists stormed the cathedral of Norte-Dame, installed the goddess of human reason on the church altar, and worshipped her. In a similar way, contemporary political ideology climbs atop God’s throne and seeks to wield his scepter.
In response, we must persuade them that Jesus is the true Lord and that he will certainly resolve matters of good and evil in our hearts in the future so that Americans resist rendering such irredeemable judgment of individuals in the here-and-now. After all, even God grants forgiveness. Likewise, we must reject the “revolutionary spirit” that replaced God with man, divine revelation with autonomous human reason, and transcendent norms with immanent, self-authorized morality.
In short, we must persuade our fellow citizens to return to the understanding that moral order is framed in relation to creation order, that God ordains political authority, that law and justice are rooted in an objective moral order founded by God. That truth is objective and rooted in God’s revelation of himself.
It seems that, in the short term, at least, the United States will remain torn between its Judeo-Christian heritage and the myriad religions, worldviews, and ideologies that now vie for dominance in the public square. That may change in the long run. In the meantime, however, we must revitalize the American creed writ by our Founding Fathers and underlain by the Judeo-Christian tradition. And we would be well served to get down on our knees and pray.
Bruce Riley Ashford is senior fellow at the Kirby Laing Centre and author of Letters to an American Christian.